I grew up in a singing family. My siblings and I were encouraged to sing by our parents. This probably began as we were taken to church at a very young age. Bible songs were taught and caught and shared through VBS programs and other children’s ministry events. Church hymns became a staple of our Sunday morning and evenings. In time, we joined the church choir, which is where I learned to read music and sing the bass line, standing between my dad and big brother.
But singing was not just confined to our church experience. Family gatherings included singing, especially when we went camping and spent evening’s singing around the camp fire circle. Songs from folklore and legend, and all parts of the country came to be part of our repertoire as we learned new ballad’s and tributes at National Park ranger talks and State Park visitor center programs. We even made up our own take-off versions of some of these. For example: The Bear Went Over the Mountain in Cash-land included a parody verse which lyrics stated: He stuck his head in a dark hole, He stuck his head in a dark hole; and all he saw were sparkles. Don’t ask me to explain the logic of that one, but I will tell you it was hilarious when I was about ten years old – and it still makes me smile today.
Other family favorites became I love my Rooster, my Rooster loves me; O Shenandoah; This Land is My Land; and a variety of John Denver songs (Country Roads, Grandma’s Feather Bed, Annie’s Song, etc.). We sang parts, blended harmonies, plucked guitars and sat under the smoke of the fire and the stars of the universe with God Almighty as our audience. It’s a good memory, one of those simpler kinds of life memories that you need now and again.
Holiday’s too became times for family music. Christmas carols dominated from mid-November to New Year’s. These were sung around the piano, at church, in the car – wherever the spirit prompted. One of my funniest memories is the church caroling outing where we surprised an elderly gentleman of the congregation. He came to the door in nothing but his long johns. He so enjoyed the serenade he didn’t realize (or care) that he was rather exposed. Wow, I hadn’t thought of that for some time!
Traveling music, singing in the car, was also a pastime. If it was ever an irritant to my dad or mother, they did not let on. In fact, they usually joined in, or listened. I can hardly remember a trip when the radio was in use; but I remember passing many a mile in song.
This time of year, this Thanksgiving week, that song, more often than not, was Over the River and Through the Woods. Do you know it? We did. We liked it, and I’m not sure why. We didn’t have to ford a river or even cut through much of a wood to get to either Grandma or Grandpa’s home. Grandma Cash lived less than a quarter of a mile down the road – free access, no rivers or woods impairing our travel. And Grandpa Cunningham was a few miles away, but unless a blizzard had happened (in which case we would’ve probably stayed home) I can’t remember too many treks where we forged our way through white and drifted snow, or suffered frost bite. O yeah, our sleigh, it was generally a used Chevy Impala or Ford pick-up.
But that’s just the thing with singing, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to make sense, or be completely rational. Singing, in fact, gives us permission to be a little irrational at times. It brings out a side of people that we just often don’t see – a playful, bemused and engaged side that throws caution to the wind and tries to hit that three-part harmony. It takes the most serious middle-aged dad and transforms him into a goofy guy who is singing about roosters and “cock-a-doodle-doing”! It joins a Grandpa and his granddaughter in the laughter and hilarity of silliness. It bringing siblings who are just a few years apart together, and transcends their travel from worry about who’s touching whom and staying on your side of the back seat.
I’m afraid in a screen driven world of individualized gadgets and Wi-Fi, with 4g networks and unlimited data, that we’ve nearly lost sight of this simpler type of being together. I’m afraid that we’ve traded in familiar harmony for individualized discord. But there’s a remedy available. It’s called singing. It doesn’t have to be great, or even always on key, but try it – try it with your family, your kids and grandkids. Try it, and see where it takes you. You just might go over the river and through the woods.